Reducing Stress in Men: Improving Mental HealthMay 31, 2023
Based on personal experience, I want to share a simple and effective starting point to understand stress, mental health and how to strengthen your well-being.
I wanted to talk about it. Damn it. I wanted to scream. I wanted to yell. I wanted to shout about it. But all I could do was whisper, I'm fine.' Anon.
The Mask of Masculinity: Why Many Men Suffer in Silence
Many men suffer in silence when it comes to mental health. Engaged in a quiet war, they battle an army of worries and doubts - feelings that often remain elusive and difficult to articulate.
Deep down, a pervasive sense exists among many men that, beyond their contributions to others, they are not cared for in a way that feels genuinely meaningful.
The fear of vulnerability looms large.
To reveal what's hidden within can lead to misunderstandings. This perceived risk may drive many men to suppress their emotions, choosing stoicism as a defence.
After all, isn't that what strong men are supposed to do?
Men commonly adhere to rules forged in the playgrounds of their youth: Don't cry. Stop complaining and get on with it.
Though these maxims can create a damaging narrative, they also serve as a manual—a tribal roadmap that provides a semblance of belonging and direction.
Unfortunately, these crude life instructions may send many down the path of isolation, leading to a lonely existence.
The Impact of Life Changes: A Personal Story
In 2014, my wife and I traded the familiar chaos of London for a life in Berlin, Germany.
It seemed like a great idea. Head somewhere new and try something fresh. Plunge into the unknown and embrace the present. A novel and romantic prospect set against the humdrum routine of relentless London life.
In 2015, my son's birth ripped through my naive plans for newfound freedom. It also shone a harsh light on all the shortcomings I'd long been sweeping aside.
After a traumatic birth on Saturday night, I returned to work on Monday morning. New dad stardust, if any, settled fast, and much suffering followed.
Life as a teacher and psychotherapist has taught me much about looking after others. But I'd neglected to take care of myself.
As a result, valued friendships had slipped away and maintaining appearances was the standard performance. I spent little, if any, time experiencing 'me.' But I thought I was doing okay as long as I looked okay.
Yet 'okay' is flimsy at best. It's an ongoing effort to maintain an erratic house of cards, an outward-facing structure that can crash down fast.
The art of fatherhood was an alien concept. My dad had left a void, leaving no footsteps to follow or learn from. My wife had been a constant source of stability. Yet she seemed to drift away as our son's arrival shifted the fulcrum of our lives.
Set against our new life in Berlin, I was without friends, support and stability. In essence, I was a child on the doorstep of fatherhood. Now and again, my wife would take my hand or hold me in her arms, and the noise would dampen down for a moment.
A shaft of light, clarity and hope. And then my son would chime in with an instinctive, urgent need for attention - and the light would fade again.
I felt alone and scared. Locked in a small, dark room inside my head, I also felt guilty that this tiny, helpless life rendered me so displaced.
I couldn't understand it. Like being trapped in a bottle and trying to read the label on the outside. What was happening? …
Thankfully, that was a few years ago now. And although I wouldn't wish to repeat the experience, I'm grateful for the hard-earned lessons. Namely, to be receptive to life's alarm bells when they ring, to hear the message and stop going it alone.
Why Do Men Struggle with Stress? Cultural Narratives and Men's Mental Health
In a world that often insists we "man up" and power through, men frequently wrestle with stress, seemingly isolated and without the tools to manage.
Usually, a combination of mental hardwiring and social conditioning prevents many men from seeking emotional help when needed. This amounts to much unnecessary strife and suffering.
It's crucial to note that individuals of any gender can experience various stressors. Yet societal and cultural factors may impact men more frequently or be experienced differently.
Moreover, how stress is handled varies significantly by individual and is not solely determined by gender. Nevertheless, here are a few examples of stressors I've observed affecting an increasing (and sometimes disproportionate) number of men.
Five Key Stressors Affecting Men's Mental Health
- Performance at Work: Men may face significant stress related to job performance and financial provision, partly due to traditional societal norms that often position them as their families' primary earners or providers. This expectation can create substantial pressure and stress, particularly during economic instability or job insecurity.
- Emotional Expression: Many societies and cultures encourage men to be stoic, suppressing their emotions or discouraging them from expressing their feelings. As a result, men may associate vulnerability with weakness, so fail to seek support as a preventative measure. This leads to emotional stress, loneliness, and difficulty maintaining relationships.
- Physical Health and Body Image: Though body image is often considered a stressor more common among women, men confront increasing pressures and stressors related to physical appearance, fitness, and strength. The 'ideal' male body often portrayed in media can amplify self-esteem and body image issues because conforming to these ideals is on par with worthiness.
- Masculinity and Identity: Societal expectations about being a 'real man' can lead to stress, especially for those who feel they do not conform to these standards. This can include pressure to be dominant, to engage in risk-taking behaviours, or to avoid appearing 'weak.'
- Fatherhood and Parenting: Men often face stress related to their father roles, particularly balancing work and family responsibilities or dealing with societal expectations of being a 'good' father. In the past, parenting roles were more easily defined. For good or bad, these were generally straightforward to understand.
All these factors played a role in those early days of fatherhood. In a nutshell, the demands of adapting to a new phase of life and the resources available to meet those demands felt insufficient.
It was a simple mismatch that led to complex and distressing consequences.
High stress leaves little bandwidth to perceive events with a clear or helpful perspective. Perhaps similar to needing a step back to formulate how to swim - it's tough when it seems you're already drowning.
That I - as someone trained and familiar with such matters - still fell by the emotional wayside leads me to believe I'm not alone.
So, how did events begin to improve? The first step involved calming myself down (just a bit) to review my wellbeing with a simple, practical framework. This self-audit helped me assess my mental health with a logical and reassuring step-by-step approach.
Reviewing the different emotional needs in my life - for instance, the requirement to give and receive meaningful attention, have access to a community and a sense of status (to feel acknowledged and accepted), I was in the red across the board. In essence, these unmet needs represented emotional deficits - stressors, and these were accumulating to form overwhelming distress.
Reviewing my emotional health offered an essential wake-up call; to stop going it alone, to become honest, and to actively seek out the experiences of other men. Because shining a light on emotional distress is the first step out of the tunnel and into the light.
Supporting Yourself - and the Men in Your Life
Assessing your emotional health with a practical framework is one of the most powerful steps to support yourself and the people you love.
It's one of my first conversations with my private clients because it provides a clear, reliable context for self-understanding.
If you feel distressed, anxious, or in a corner … however your experience arises, reviewing your well-being through an emotional needs filter will help you formulate and understand your experience.
So, I want to share this assessment with you. It's completely free and has an audio link included for listening.
You can download the assessment here.
Please let me know what you find out from your review if you'd like to. You'll find my contact details inside.
I answer all my emails personally, so be in touch!
Again, here's that link. Thanks for reading.
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